Science comes from curiosity, and many institutions have been fostering that curiosity in our community for decades. In the case of the Cincinnati Observatory, these efforts have been ongoing for over 175 years! This week, we had the privilege of hearing more about these early efforts from Kelsey Stryffe, Docent and Administrative Assistant at the Observatory.
In the 1840’s, Professor Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel at Cincinnati College lectured on physics, math and astronomy. Although these lectures were intended for his students, the professor was so engaging and charismatic that his students frequently invited their families. His audience continued to expand until they no longer fit within the walls of any lecture hall available on campus at the time. Eventually, they moved to other locations to handle the crowds, such as Wesley Chapel in downtown Cincinnati.
Mitchel saw this interest, and in it saw an opportunity. He began raising money, door to door; for about the equivalent of a month’s salary, families could buy shares in what would become a public observatory. This sounds like a lot, especially because funding can be hard to come by in science! But people were already so excited about astronomy that they were willing to support this endeavor. Soon he raised the funds to build the observatory on Mt. Adams, and purchase a telescope. From the day the observatory opened, it was available to the public.
Mitchel did not come to Cincinnati specifically to build a research observatory, happening to provide the community with an incredible opportunity. Mitchel grew up in Lebanon, outside of Cincinnati. The people here were his community, and his intention was to stay here to teach science.
Although he sometimes struggled to do research in between everyone who wanted to look into space, Mitchel had built “the Birthplace of American Astronomy.” This was the first telescope in North America, and at our latitude; therefore, it gave scientists what was at the time a new and unique vantage point to see into space. Mitchel was able to describe the sky from here, vastly adding to knowledge that had been acquired by scientists overseas. From this telescope, he described orbits and patterns. It was also used to discover a binary star and describe a region of Mars that would be named “the Mountains of Mitchel” in the professor’s honor.
As Cincinnati’s industries grew, the city’s air became more polluted from the amount of coal being burned. It created a tar-like smoke in the atmosphere, blocking the observatory’s view of space. Eventually, the building and telescope would have to move to Mt. Lookout, which was outside of the city at the time, to continue to be able to see the sky. However, before that happened, Mitchel moved to New York to get away from the pollution, and established another observatory there. He would go on to fight in the Civil War as a Major General, and would pass away from Yellow Fever while serving in South Carolina.
However, Mitchel’s legacy of educating and engaging the community in astronomy lives on through the observatory. Even through the light pollution, the telescopes at the Cincinnati Observatory can see to the edges of our solar system, and even to our neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy. While this is more limited than most modern research telescopes, it is still a special opportunity for members of the public, and it continues to be open. Since it reopened in the 1990’s, the staff and volunteers at the observatory have worked hard to provide K-12 teaching materials affordably. They have been hosting classes about star gazing and space online since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, offer a program that allows members to borrow telescopes, and work with the Stonelick Star Gazers, a group of amateur astronomers, to have stargazes at Stonelick State Park.
The Cincinnati Observatory is currently open by reservation on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. As we get back to normal after COVID-19, watch their website for these hours to expand. In the meantime, watch their social media for events and things to watch for from your own backyard. You can read more about their history here.